Creating an Encylopedia of the Ghettos

Last month, NYU Press published a major new reference work on the holocaust, the two volume Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust. Editor Dan Michman sat down with Haaretz to discuss how the whole project came together. We’ve got an excerpt here on the blog; read the whole interview at Haaretz.

What was the genesis of the encyclopedia?

About a decade ago we decided, at the research institute of Yad Vashem, to take on a number of big projects, studies of the “infrastructure” of the Holocaust that a single researcher wouldn’t be able to do on his own. These were part of a much wider attempt to understand the vast logistics of the murder of the Jews, and the persecutions that preceded that.

One of those projects, begun in 2003, involved mapping out all the ghettos. There are two others still in the works. One is a project mapping all of the Eastern European killing sites – looking at who participated on the German side, who their Jewish victims were and where they were from, as well as the role played by locals. The other is to map the entire network of railroads employed by the Germans in deportations to the death camps.

In what way might the encyclopedia change our understanding of the Holocaust?

Many people have a certain conception of the Shoah. They assume that it proceeded in preplanned stages, and that during one of them, the ghettos were established. This understanding is based on their knowledge of the big ghettos − Warsaw, Lodz, Vilna and the like.

Until a few years ago, no one knew how many ghettos there were. I myself would have said that there were 500, maybe 600. But it turns out there were more than 1,000, many of them in small neglected places. You can page through the encyclopedia and learn about places that had maybe 1,000 or 2,000 Jews, or even fewer, living in a ghetto.
Another example: In mid-May, we had a launch for the book in New York. Prof. Omer Bartov [of Brown University], who is now working on a book on Buczacz, where S.Y. Agnon as well as Bartov’s own family were from, spoke about what he has learned. In his talk he emphasized that from our encyclopedia you can understand the way people lived in the many remote and little towns, and thus you get an entirely different view of what ghetto life was about. He said his studies have shown that, for instance, people who served on the Judenrat [the Jewish council during the German occupation] in Buczacz later made up the core of the resistance. So the dichotomy we sometimes make between “collaborators” and “resistance” isn’t necessarily accurate. The encyclopedia is therefore not just a summary of existing knowledge, but it will serve as an impetus for new insights.

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